We live in an age of fantasists, a time when people not quite constrained by reality flourish nonetheless. The term is not as harsh as “fabulist,” a person who lives in a make-believe world (think George Santos). It is more forgiving than “liar,” or “mythomaniac,” the condition of being a pathological liar. Fantasists don’t necessarily believe that what they’re saying is false. They just know they don’t know whether what they say is true. And they don’t really care. Their words construct the reality they seek. They feed on the reaction to their words.
Fantasism is a superpower today. It is an ability that most of us do not have and cannot practice, but which can be enormously valuable. Most of us feel the pull of truth or reality. We can’t ignore it easily or without struggle. It nags at us, even when we resist it. We broadcast that we’re lying, even when we try to hide it. Well-socialized souls are handicapped in this way. Society benefits from that handicap.
But some are not so constrained. Some find it easy to just say whatever they want, and seem like they believe it. Donald Trump, in this sense, is a fantasist (2020 was “rigged.”) So too is Elon Musk (“Musk Predicts Level 4 Or 5 Full Self-Driving ‘Later This Year’ — For the Tenth Year In A Row.”) And RFK Jr. (COVID-19 possibly “‘ethnically targeted’ to spare Jews”). All three have an extraordinary ability to assert what they have no reason to believe and to convince us both that they believe what they assert and that perhaps—just maybe—it is true. They each profit because they can so effortlessly escape the constraints of reality and somehow make it stick.
Two facts about who we are now enable such fantasists to flourish. One fact is more technical, the other more cultural. Both together create the perfect storm for self-government. Or put more starkly, if we don’t change the second, and learn to resist the first, democracy is toast.
The corruptions of algorithms
Societies have long feared their vulnerability to lies. Free societies have responded to that fear by entrenching practices of free speech. Free speech, in this sense, is a mechanism for finding truth — if not immediately, then, through the competition of ideas, at least eventually. As Justice Holmes famously put it,